Oriental Rugs Today: Chapter 3 Part 1
Collectors of old rugs don’t like new Oriental rugs, or haven’t until recently, and if they like them now, it is only with reluctance. Interior designers have a similar attitude. They are preoccupied with a ‘look’, and they associate that look with old rugs. But they are pragmatic, and I believe that exposure to the excellent new rugs of this era will convince many designers that new rugs have to be considered — especially in light of their relatively low price tag.
Collectors of old rugs are the ones I worry about. One, a well-known architect, has recorded his belief that Oriental rugs really haven’t amounted to much since the fourteenth century. More indulgent collectors have allowed that Oriental rugs had merit until as recently, even, as the late nineteenth century. We have seen that, until just a few years ago, they had a point. Collectors could name objective differences (besides age) between antique and new rugs. But now many new rugs again are made with natural dyes and handspun wool, and are fashioned with exactly the same roots and fruits and nuts and knots and wool as rugs made two thousand five hundred years ago. Yet old-rug collectors do not eagerly embrace them. What are the problems with new rugs…or with old-rug collectors? What are the issues? Let’s survey them.
Argument for old rugs: Old Oriental rugs sprang from village traditions and are personal expressions of the weavers who made them. They are real, they are genuine, they are works of art. New rugs, on the other hand, are nothing more than commodities ordered by New York wholesalers.
A newly completed kilim and Turkish villagers, 1985.
Response of a new rug advocate: Rug dealers, especially those selling antique carpets, have been masters at promoting the ‘noble savage’ myth, in which unspoiled weavers in isolated tribes and villages were left alone to pass along design traditions for thousands of years, untainted by commercialism. Even sophisticated rug collectors, I think, have trouble ridding themselves of romantic notions about the cultural purity of the past. But rarely, if ever, has rugmaking been divorced from commerce. Families have always poured into the nearest towns on market day to cash in their carpets. And why not? Are we so certain that whatever has commercial value has any less artistic merit? One could argue just the opposite: that a weaver working on a rug she will sell will make a special effort to do a good job. In fact, many of the ninety-year-old carpets so valued by collectors and interior designers today were strictly commercial productions. Ziegler Mahals (Sultanabads), for instance, were designed and commissioned by a European firm, and Serapis were commissioned by Tabriz rug merchants who, in many cases, supplied designs for Heriz district weavers.
Argument for old rugs: I see new rugs I like, but they are just copies of antique rugs. With both traditional old rugs and new copies of them in the marketplace, which would you rather collect, old rugs or new copies?
Detail of a new Aryana with an Heriz design. It is not uncommon even for experts to mistake rugs like this for antiques. And why not? It was made almost exactly the same way they were made 2500 years ago.
Response of a new rug advocate: I would rather collect good rugs, old or new. A connoisseur finds beauty wherever it is: in a fragment of a 12th-century rug, or in a 1995 Little River rug from Black Mountain Looms. But why is it that you call the new rug a copy while you refer to an old village rug as ‘traditional’? That village rug is traditional because it is a copy of a copy of a copy — ad infinitum. You may say that each village weaver adds something of herself to the rug she copies, but so do today’s rugmakers: a different texture, different colors, a different finish. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a new version of an old rug that hasn’t changed in some important way. Some are successful, and some are not. The trick is to separate the wheat from chaff. That is half the fun of selecting an Oriental rug.
Argument for old rugs: Almost everyone acknowledges that Oriental rugs become more beautiful as they grow older. There seems to be something about age itself that contributes to the beauty of rugs and carpets. Washing new rugs with chemicals simply cannot duplicate the natural beauty that comes from time.
Response of a new rug advocate: Oh, I don’t know. I have seen respected, professional rug dealers who specialize in antique carpets (I could name names) mistake brand new Oriental rugs for pieces ninety years old — and offer to buy them! If it is age that gives old rugs their character, how do you account for experts being fooled by rugs with no age at all? I have come to believe that it is use rather than age which accounts for the admittedly appealing character of old rugs. Use can be simulated in new rugs without compromising their wool. Anyway, even if no effort is made to ‘age’ a new rug, it will become an old rug soon enough. After all, even the oldest rug began life as a newborn.
The design of this carpet may be used more than once, but its colors, produced in small batches of natural dyes, will vary so greatly from one rug to the next that no two rugs will ever look alike. It was made in India by Rugs by Robinson of Atlanta, Georgia.
On the question of whether it is age or use that gives rugs a patina, consider the Armenian immigrant rugs. These Armenian rugs flowed by the thousands into America during the years surrounding 1990, brought by Armenian immigrants upon the breakup of the Soviet Union. These rugs were fairly old, some dated as early as 1915, but many had been mounted on walls in Armenia during most of their lives and hence were essentially unused and in nearly perfect condition. Collectors found these rugs ‘too new’, but I believe they really found them too unused. Ironically, to make these old pieces more desirable to collectors, an enterprising rug dealer would have to lay these nearly perfectly preserved Armenian immigrant rugs out in the streets for three months and beat them up until they matched the expectations rug collectors have of how old rugs are supposed to appear. It is interesting to compare the disappointment many art lovers felt when the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel was cleaned, exposing disturbingly bright colors in Michelangelo’s paintings.
Argument for old rugs: Old rugs were one-of-a-kind. New rugs are cranked out like automobiles: there may be different models, but rugs of each model are alike as peas in a pod.
Response of a new rug advocate: Some rugs made today are, as you say, cranked out and nearly identical. Of course the same was true eighty years ago. Caucasian rugs, Turkmen rugs, Persian village rugs, Turkish village rugs — thousands were so alike that they may as well have been identical. Actually, some rugs in the market now are one-of-a-kind: certain rugs made by Samad Brothers and Rugs by Robinson, for instance. Their designs may be repeated, but their colors vary so greatly because of their small-batch dyeing and the use of natural dyes that for all practical purposes there will never be another like them. Other productions, such as Woven Legends, allow weavers so much freedom to improvise elements of design that their rugs are never exactly alike. This one-of-a-kind approach is one of the aspects of new-rugmaking that I find revolutionary.
Argument for old rugs: Rugmakers have succeeded in making new rugs look good through technical accomplishments such as learning how to use natural dyes, but mostly by copying the look of old rugs. How much real creativity is there in modern Oriental carpets? Compare what today’s rugmakers are doing with what artisans did in sixteenth-century Persia during the Safavid dynasty. Then we had an artistic revolution; today we have a technical renaissance.
Response of a new rug advocate: We agree that this is in part a technical renaissance, but we make no apology for that. Before about 1980, natural dyeing and the practice of spinning wool by hand were essentially dead. Unlike Safavid-era artisans, modern rugmakers had to learn the craft from scratch. It is astonishing that they have accomplished so much, especially considering how tempting it must have been to continue working with the excellent, inexpensive, modern synthetic dyes at their disposal. That is a temptation Safavid rugmakers did not have to overcome.
But about creativity. Were the Safavids more creative than today’s rugmakers? They certainly had more resources at their disposal—the resources of the Persian court. They could afford to educate and employ specialists whose only job was to design rugs. They could afford the finest wool and dyestuffs imaginable. They could afford to employ the best weavers in the world. They could afford to work on one palace-sized piece with 500 knots per square inch for years. And they could afford not to sell the carpet when it was completed. I wonder if we mistake the exceptional advantages Safavid weavers enjoyed for exceptional creativity.
Not much creativity in today’s rugs? I don’t believe it. This simple new gabbeh from southern Iran, though neither fine in weave nor sophisticated in design, is every bit as much a personal statement and its weaver as creative as those from any era. The rug is about three feet square (and an inch thick!).
But creativity is a tricky matter in a conservative medium like Oriental carpets—or the blues. If a blues singer is to be taken seriously, he has to sound like a blues singer. His first concern is to sound authentic. Likewise, whoever aspires to be an Oriental rugmaker must make rugs that look like Oriental rugs. A rug weaver is in a bind. Today, if she copies other rugs, she is not considered creative. If she is too creative, she is not making Oriental rugs.
Rugmakers now are doing about what rugmakers have always done. Most look around to see what everybody else is making. Fortunately, a lot of people today are making interesting pieces, and others jump in and find interesting things to do, too. But then there are a few individuals who go beyond that. They are the truly gifted, and perhaps they are geniuses in their fields.
I will name my candidates, though I fear I will embarrass them, while making enemies of dozens of other excellent rugmakers whom I slight unfairly. They are Teddy Sumner, George Jevremovic, and Chris Walter. I suspect there are native producers of whom I am unaware who belong in this small group, and I am certain that other people in the rug industry will have worthy candidates of their own. Other rugmakers have made rugs as good as the best of the people I have mentioned, but the breadth and extent of their accomplishments set these three apart. (You can find more about them in Part Two.) All are grounded in traditional design: George Jevremovic and Chris Walter in antique Oriental rugs, Teddy Sumner more in Western design. But from their grounding in tradition has come something special, something — yes — creative.
This indeed is a period of creative rugmaking. The renaissance goes far beyond technical advances, and I am confident that when collectors a hundred years from now sort out the rugs and carpets of our era, many will be found to have withstood the test of time. I think future collectors will have no hesitation at all in proclaiming many of our contemporary rugs works of art.
Argument for old rugs: Antique rugs are proven survivors. They have been exposed to sunlight, they’ve been washed and walked on, they have been tried and tested by use. If you buy an antique rug that looks good, you can be pretty certain there will be no surprises. Of course that is not true of new rugs.
Response of a new rug advocate: I agree.
The irony inherent in the old rug/new rug argument, of course, is that, long before the argument is settled, new rugs will be old rugs, and then, I trust, they will get some respect! In the meantime, new rugs are much less expensive than old ones that are in good condition, and that is a powerful and sometimes deciding argument in their favor. Having spent decades on the floor, antique rugs can be tricky to buy. They may contain old repairs, stains, and rotten areas, and they may even have been painted to hide wear. New rugs are much easier to buy with confidence.
How do I feel personally about new rugs vs. old?
The truth is that I find new rugs every day that I love, and then, from time to time, I find an antique rug that just completely staggers me. Something does happen to Oriental rugs with use over time. George Jevremovic compares rugs with certain kinds of African art objects whose makers ’empower’ them by various rituals. Oriental rugs, he says, are empowered by use. There is truth in what he says. Unaccountably, after they have been danced on, spilled on, wet on, and lived on by families for generations, they seem to look better. New rugs will similarly improve over time.
The first rug I ever owned may have been the best one I will ever own. It was a Tekke main carpet, probably 150 years old, with the quintessential Tekke red. Those were my boot days, and I wore the rug out in about three years. I will never again use an antique carpet on the floor. Thank God for new rugs that we know are improving — rather than starting to decline — with continued use.